The date: Tuesday. The time: Lunch break o’clock. The mission: Introducing Snowy to the entire group. The problem:
“Are you sure this is a good idea? Maybe we should do it another time...”
I let a shallow sigh escape my mouth and turned to the girl fidgeting behind my back. We were standing just outside the cafeteria entrance. It was only a few minutes after the lunch break started, but the place was already packed with placeholders. The rest of the gang was already inside as well, as per planned, courtesy of my assistant’s efforts.
After a short (and in no way heated) discussion during our morning commute we came up with a simple plan. No bells, no whistles, no elaborate Rube Goldberg machines that would have dropped Snowy into the midst of the group (which, by the way, would have totally worked if we could only find a mouse to power a conveyor belt).
As it stood, the plan was deceptively simple: just introduce Snowy in a controlled environment and make sure everyone gets along before we return to a hands-free approach and stop interfering with the group-dynamics. Of course the last part was easier said than done, but Judy was very adamant about it, so I grudgingly agreed. It didn’t mean I would stop hanging out with the guys, just that I would stop shepherding them... in theory, at least.
Anyways, I took Snowy by the shoulder and pulled her to the front. She stepped there without any resistance; though getting her to actually move forward took a bit more effort.
“Listen Snowy, the sooner we get this over, the easier it will be for everyone. Think of it as removing a band-aid in one pull. It might sting a little, but once it’s over the net pain will be much lower than if you tried to pry it off slowly.”
“I don’t like doing it either way,” She protested as I kept pushing her. “I still don’t think this is a good idea.”
I silently groaned and stopped pushing. Instead I grabbed hold of her shoulders again and turned her around so that I could look her in the eye. “Snowy.”
“Y-Yes?” Correction: I tried to look her in the eye, but she steadfastly refused to let me. Instead she kept sheepishly gazing at her shoes like they were the most interesting thing ever.
I continued, disregarding her lack of eye-contact. “They are nice guys. I wouldn’t be friends with them if they weren’t. Just talk to them.”
“But.... what if they...”
I hushed her by placing a finger in front of her lips before she could get started. “Don’t worry. I will be right behind you. Just make sure you act naturally and everything will be fine.”
She nodded; probably more by reflex than as a sign of actual agreement, and after some further urging we finally got past the door. The dining hall was about as busy as it usually tended to be around this time, its air filled to the brim with inane placeholder-chatter, the kind that quickly mixed and melded together into an indistinct buzz of white noise.
I scanned the premises and I quickly found the gang sitting at a table slightly removed from the rest in the near corner, not too far from the pre-made foods counter. I gave the girl at my side one last reassuring smile and began walking... only to stop, turn back and start dragging her along.
We successfully reached the table without causing too much of a commotion (hey, at this point I took that as a small victory). I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little worried about the girls’ reactions, but thankfully my fears have proven mostly unfounded.
Let’s count the reactions from right to left, shall we? First off was my loyal (if slightly overbearing) assistant. Her reaction was pretty much as expected; meaning exactly zilch. Then there was Angie at her side, who looked surprisingly uninterested in the newcomer, preferring to instead stuff herself like she was starving all morning. Josh was smiling awkwardly, though probably more due to surprise than disliking the development, while the princess on his left was also trying to smile though it never reached her eyes. Finally there was the class rep, and to my disappointment she actually looked pretty hostile, though not so overtly that one would notice without looking closely enough.
Well, four out of five was still a good ratio, right? Anyways, once we were close enough I dusted off my charming smile and waved at them in the most casual and friendly manner I could muster.
“Hey guys, guess who I ran into!” Saying so I stepped aside and presented Snowy with a small flourish; then after she didn’t move for a few seconds I firmly patted her on the back to get her to do something.
She looked at the people at the table like a deer at the headlights of an incoming truck. For several seconds she kept glancing back and forth between the faces, never lingering on one for more than a split-second, until she at last locked eyes with Joshua. After some hesitation her eyes softened, her lips cured up and with a husky voice she uttered, “Hi darling, I missed y...”
She got so far before my knuckle made contact with the crown of her head. She twitched in surprise and then crouched down while protectively grasping her head. That surprised me. I didn’t actually hit her; I only placed my fist on top of her head. Hell, I barely even touched her!
Anyways, when she looked up at me I extended the same hand towards her, palm out and fingers spread.
“Five seconds. You lasted less than five seconds before you lapsed into your vamp act. Were you even trying?”
“S-Sorry...” She rushed to answer at once while still clutching her head like she expected I would hit her. That made me feel bad. Maybe I accidentally touched on some kind of trauma? She must have taken the momentary silence during which I was thinking as further proof of my disapproval, as she continued; “I... I just didn’t know what else to say. I… sorry, it won’t happen again.”
I let out a sharp breath and shook my head while extending my hand again, this time in order to help her onto her feet.
“You don’t have to be that sorry. Just make sure you keep it in mind.”
I helped her up, and it was around this time I realized we were still being watched by the gang. I sighed and propped Snowy up, absently straightening her sleeves in order to gain a few seconds of thinking space. At last I turned to the table with a smile I hoped wasn’t too forced and cleared my throat.
“We started off on the wrong foot. Let’s try this again.” I patted Snowy on the back, in mirror image of the first introduction, but this time I did the speaking. “You are probably all aware of it, but this is Neige, the new transfer student and Josh’s ex-stalker.”
“Ex-stalker?” The class-rep interrupted, her stern expression saying that she was already in authority-mode.
“We... worked things out,” Unexpectedly it was Josh who came to my rescue.
“Yesterday, on the roof,” I answered in his stead and swiftly continued before she could interrupt again. “Anyways, as you can see, she is a little awkward around strangers, so I thought I should help her out a bit, as a favor from one transfer student to another.”
“You never helped me,” This time the princess was the one doing the interrupting, though if her tone was any indication she was more sulky than confrontational.
“Really? Didn’t I help you make your first friend in school?” She gave me a puzzled look, so I pointed at myself. “Me?”
She blinked at me and averted her eyes while murmuring something about being unfair under her breath.
“Angeline, say something,” The class rep pleaded to her last possible ally, who was in the process of stuffing her head with chicken-wings like there was nothing out of the ordinary happening around her.
“Hrmf?” She quickly swallowed and tried again. “I’m okay with her. Josh already explained what happened.”
“He did?” The class rep sounded downright betrayed. It was at this point that I gently nudged Snowy forwards. I wiggled my eyebrows to tell her to capitalize on the situation and say what we agreed on beforehand, before the class rep would come up with some other objection. She somehow seemed to understand the gist of it. She stepped forwards and bowed her head to the table.
“I... I’m sorry about the trouble I caused to you. I’m really sorry. I just... I want... I would like to be friends with you, if it’s not too much of a bother to ask...”
She actually slurred the last sentence and the final words trailed into a mumbled whisper, but it seemed the recipients of the apology could get the intention nevertheless. I smiled at Snowy reassuringly as we both awaited the judgment of the jury. To my sincerest surprise it was not Josh or even Angie that offered the olive branch first, but the princess of all people.
“Oh, fine...” She grumbled. “If we are at apologies, I’m sorry for tackling you. It might have been something of a minor overreaction on my part.”
I wanted to point out that her apology sounded a bit insincere when she was glaring like that, but I decided it was better to keep quiet for the moment. The class rep gave the princess a classic ‘Et tu, Brute?!’ look, followed by a ‘we are going to talk about this later, prepare yourself’ frown aimed at yours truly, but in the end she sighed and dropped her shoulders in resignation.
“Have a seat.”
Snowy’s face lit up at once, though her eyes were still cautious, like a scared bunny that was offered a piece of carrot and didn’t know whether she should take it or not. I gave her another gentle push and she finally walked over to the empty seat next to Judy. My assistant, completely passive until this point, shook her head and pointed at the other empty seat next to the class rep.
“This one is reserved for the chief.”
Judy nodded and pointed at me. Snowy mouthed a small “Oh...” and obediently took the other chair. I followed suit, taking my ‘reserved’ seat with a small frown, but the moment I got my backside into position I slapped my forehead.
“I forgot to buy lunch!”
“Yes,” My assistant stated stoically at my side while she unpacked a small lunchbox and placed it in front of me. “I have you covered.”
“Thanks?” I replied by reflex and raised the lid, revealing three sandwiches wrapped in floral-print napkins. In retrospect, I don’t know what else I was expecting. I was ready to dig in, but then something occurred to me and I looked at the white-haired girl fidgeting near me. “Snowy doesn’t have anything either.”
“I got her covered too,” Judy interjected and she subsequently produced another, slightly smaller box.
She handed it to me and I forwarded the package to its intended recipient while I whispered, “You are the best.”
Judy nodded and simply whispered, “I know.”
“T-Thank you very much for your kindness.”
We both looked over and found Snowy staring at Judy with teary eyes. I smiled at her encouragingly in place of my still stoic assistant, but before I could say anything the princess reached over and deposited a croissant into my lunchbox. When I looked up at her she promptly looked away.
“I bought too much, so I thought I would share.” When I didn’t stop looking at her she glanced at me, flushed red and then immediately averted her eyes again. “Don’t get the wrong idea! We are going to have PE this afternoon, and you are going to need the food.”
“I see,” I nodded with a smile. She was such a tsundere... “Thank you very much.”
“You... are welcome.”
“Do you like croissants, Lili?” The question came from Josh and it piqued my interest three ways at once.
“I... don’t dislike them?” Snowy answered uncertainly, her eyes jumping between Joshua and me.
“I figured,” Josh crossed his arms and nodded to himself like he made a major discovery. “You were looking at them so intensely.”
“I wasn’t really...”
“Here.” To my surprise, the princess actually gave her one. “D-Don’t take it the wrong way though. It’s just part of my apology. For the tackling.”
“I understand…” Snowy replied, though if her tone was any indication, she actually didn’t. The better question was though, why was the princess periodically glancing at me while she was doing this? Maybe it was her way of showing she was making an effort? I gave her a thumb up, but she only glared at me in return, so maybe not…
“Can I have one too?” Judy interrupted, stealing another croissant from the princess’ plate before she could answer.
“You said you bought too much. I’m just helping.”
“Oh really? Then I suppose with that extra food you don’t need this sandwich!”
Saying so the princess reached over the table and snatched away one of Judy’s sandwiches. My assistant let out a crestfallen “Oh,” and looked at me with the eyes of a hurt puppy.
“Chief, she stole my wages.”
I wanted to point out to her that she started it, but then one of my sandwiches was suddenly exchanged with a chicken drumstick. I looked up and found Angie grinning at me with said sandwich in her hands, and when I raised a brow she simply declared, “Smorgasbord!”
“That’s not how a smorgasbord works,” I protested dryly before turning to the class rep, who was quietly playing with her food across the table in a rare display of abject sourness. “Could you talk to her before things get out of hand?” To my sincere astonishment she huffed at me and shook her head. “Oh come on!”
“It doesn’t matter to me.”
“You say that now, but it’s only a matter of time before your food will be in danger too.”
She gave me a critical look and poked her plate with her fork. “I have spaghetti. You can’t exchange that.”
“Ooooooh! That sounds like a challenge to me!” Angie exclaimed with a grin as she began rummaging through her bag and in a second she produced a small plastic fork.
“Wait, no!” Suddenly drawn into the commotion, the class rep put her own fork between Angie and her food with an unspoken ‘You shall not pass!’ At first Angie tried to circumvent her defenses, but the class rep had proven to be a formidable opponent and she couldn’t even get close to her plate.
“Don’t be so stubborn! Just a little taster!”
“Stop it! You are being childish!”
“That’s it!” Angie suddenly declared with a fork raised high like a royal scepter. “I request reinforcements!”
“Quick, Neige! Grab a meatball while she isn’t looking!”
Snowy automatically reached out and plucked a meatball from the side of the class rep’s plate with her bare fingers, but then she froze with a difficult expression.
“Ummm... What do I do now?”
“Eat it!” For a moment Angie sounded like a general giving absolute orders, but Snowy only shook her head.
“But... I have nothing to give in return. I received all my food as gifts, it would be rude to give them away... but it would also be rude to take this meatball without giving anything in return... Uuuu… I don’t know what to do…”
I secretly smiled and was about to help her out when Josh came to the rescue once again, placing a slice of beef onto the class rep’s plate.
“Here, I will cover for you.”
“Beef? With spaghetti?” The recipient spoke while poking the slice of meat with her fork.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything else.”
“I... I’m sorry for imposing on you,” Snowy practically bowed to Josh, but then she also did the say for the class rep. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
The class rep seemed conflicted for a moment, but in the end her frown softened and she lightly shook her head.
“No need to apologize. It wasn’t really your…” She started, but then her attention was momentarily drawn away by having to fend off Angie’s latest sneak attack on her plate. “Stop that! You are making a commotion!”
After a few stern words and glares she actually got Angie to stop, though not before she stole her last meatball and replaced it with three chicken nuggets.
I wanted to point out that she should have done that when I first asked her, but at that particular moment my mouth was too full of croissants to talk. By the way, they were actually quite delicious. I wondered if they were from the unreasonably fancy menu of the cafeteria or whether the princess bought them somewhere else, and in the end I decided to ask her later.
Anyways, once the class rep finished reprimanding Angie she turned back to Snowy, this time with a small smile on her lips.
“You should eat that.”
“Oh...” Snowy looked uncertainly at the meatball in her hand, and after a little hesitation she bit it in half. “Hm? It’s delicious.”
This was the perfect opportunity to encourage her to interact with the others a bit more, so I promptly gave her a push.
“Yeah, the standard menus are pretty meh, but the cafeteria makes some nice stuff like that too. You should ask for recommendations.”
“Oh, me!” Josh raised his hand with an ear-to-ear grin. “I have some recommendations!”
“Except from him,” I corrected myself while pointing at my friend with my thumb. “He would bankrupt you in a week.”
“That’s harsh! I didn’t bankrupt you, did I?”
“That’s a baseless accusation! Slander, even!”
“Very well, we shall settle this in court. My lawyer will soon contact yours.”
“Errr... Could we just settle it as part of a friendly basketball game during PE?”
“That works too,” I answered while preparing to take a bite from one of my sandwiches, but I stopped halfway. “Wait, now that you mention it... It’s Tuesday. Do we even have PE today?”
As it turned out, yes, we did. Apparently it was Monday’s PE switched with our last history class for some reason. It might have had something to do with my previous afternoon being spent with restraining the princess, but I honestly didn’t notice the switch. Some observer I am, right?
I silently snorted in self-derision and hurled the javelin in my hand a little angrier than before. It flew in a beautiful arc, staying straight and true until the moment it hit the ground with a loud ‘thunk’, embedding its tip into the grassy ground a good five meters ahead of the second best throw, which also happened to be mine.
“Wow...” Joshua let out an awed whistle and patted me in the back. “You broke the school record. Again.”
“You are a natural!” Angie agreed, though I still didn’t know what she was doing hanging around on our side of the field while the girls also had their own evaluations going on in parallel. It was about throwing these small, yellow balls made of rubber as far as they could. I didn’t really see the point of it aside of providing a simple number they could pin a grade upon, but I was no PE teacher, so who knew? Maybe it did build the arm muscles. Or failing that, character.
Meanwhile, Angie continued to buzz around me, even going as far as to poke the biceps of my throwing arm.
“Maybe you were a hoplite in your previous life?”
“Hoplites didn’t throw their spears,” Came the instant rebuttal from the class rep on my left, and no, I didn’t know what she was doing over on our side either. She still seemed to give me the evil eye from time to time, but otherwise she was back to normal, which was a relief. Anyways, it was Josh’s turn on the field, so he grabbed one of the brand new red-white striped javelins from the pile at our side and winked at us.
“Just you watch! I think I’ve got the basics of your technique down!”
With that he raised his javelin, took a running start and threw it with all his might. The moment it left his hand it began wobbling in the air, and while it certainly flew a respectable distance, it still fell short, and to the right, of my second best throw by about two meters. He clicked his tongue in frustration but still smiled.
“Yeah.” I nodded and picked up another javelin even though it wasn’t my turn. I waved Josh over and showed it to him. “You need to hold it a bit closer to the head, like this. Also, you need to focus on where you want to throw it and adjust your strength accordingly. If you just toss it with all your might without giving it a clear direction, you are never going to hit anything.”
“But this is about distance, not accuracy.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah...” Joshua waved his hand and then grabbed hold of the javelin in mine. “Like this?”
“No, not that close. A little back, closer to the middle... yeah, that’s about right.”
“Are you giving free lessons?” This time it was the princess who came over. Her bangs were pulled into a loosely hanging ponytail, probably so that they wouldn’t interfere with her activities. It actually suited her. “Where did you even learn to throw like that?”
“The Chief is a man of many talents,” Came the needlessly mysterious explanation from my assistant. “Throwing things to great distances is merely one of them.”
“Now that you mention it,” Josh spoke while hefting the javelin in his hand,” You suddenly became ridiculously good at sports. You are a menace on the basketball-field too.”
“And table-tennis. Don’t forget table tennis.”
“I’m trying to, but you keep reminding me!” He grumbled as he stuck the javelin into the ground next to his feet and faced the girls. “By the way, how is the evaluation going on your side? Are you going to finish soon?”
Judy shook her head and pointed at the princess at her side. “Eleanor lost the balls, so we are on break until they find them.”
“I didn’t lose them! They are right over there on the field! … Somewhere…”
“That was a little vague,” I mused as I looked over the girls’ side, and they indeed seemed to be in the process of combing the field. “How did you even lose them?”
“Her throws were all over the place,” Angie told me while waving in the direction of the field. “Aaaaaall over.”
“That much?” She nodded, earning a contemplative 'Huh.' from me, and after a moment of thinking I lightly shrugged. “I thought she would be good with balls, being a tennis player at all, but I can certainly imagine it. She is pretty clumsy.”
“Hey! I’m standing right here!” The subject of our conversation protested aloud while stomping her feet. “I can hear you! Also, I’m not clumsy!”
“You kind of are, but don’t worry. It’s one of your charms, right Josh?”
“Um... Sure?” He answered uncertainly, probably because he wasn’t even following our conversation.
“See, the male population is in agreement. A little clumsiness from time to time is totally all right.”
The princess stared at us for a while, but in the end she turned around with a small huff. “I go and help looking for the balls!”
With that she left our side of the field and Angie and the class rep closely followed after her.
“Well, there she goes...” I muttered to no-one in particular, but then I noticed my assistant’s piercing stare and I raised a questioning brow at her. “What? Did I say something wrong?”
With that she turned around and left as well, leaving me scratching my head.
“You know...” Josh started speaking while gathering up some discarded javelins, “It’s moments like these I can’t decide whether you are good or horrible with girls.”
I gave him a flat frown. I thought we were over this already. However, before I could raise the point, Josh switched gears and let out a heavy sigh, stopping me on my tracks.
“How are we going to have our basketball duel like this?”
“You were serious about that?” He gave me a look that could be roughly translated as ‘Duh?’ After a moment of consideration I turned to him again. “How about after school?”
“Not today. I already have plans with Angie.” Noticing the subtle signs of curiosity I was giving off, Josh took a deep breath and continued. “There is this new gyros place that opened up in the neighborhood recently and she has been pestering me about it for ages. I gave in this morning, so we are going there after school.”
I chuckled to myself and waved a dismissive hand as we got into the line for the next throw.
“Fine, fine. You were the one who wanted to play; I can wait until you have a free afternoon.”
My friend stopped in his tracks for a moment and after a few seconds of thinking his mood seemed to considerably brighten.
“Actually, we really should do that soon. It’s been ages since we hung out, just the two of us.”
“Well...” I got that far before the words froze in my throat. There was a small yellow blur in the corner of my vision, and at once my body reflexively twisted itself to the side with little input from any conscious thought; in fact I did it so abruptly that I nearly lost my balance and fell on my butt. I managed to catch myself in the very last moment and shook my head with a frown.
“What the hell?!” Josh exclaimed at my side while holding his forehead. Even between his fingers I could see a circular red bump forming on it. His question mirrored mine perfectly.
“Sorry!” The princess cried out in panic as she rushed up to us. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, but that came out of nowhere!”
“Sorry...” She apologized again, and by this time the initial surprise subsided enough for the little wheels in my head to start spinning again and connecting the dots. I dodged something yellow. The girls were throwing balls over there. The princess came running over. Q.E.D....
“Excuse me, but weren’t you supposed to throw balls in that direction?”
The princess shuddered and gave me a glare that somehow also looked hurt. Don’t ask me how that worked; she was a virtuoso when it came to glares after all.
“Y-Yeah. It slipped out of my hand.”
She kept glaring at me as if she was daring me to say anything else. In the end I decided that there was no point in teasing her over an accident like this, so I shrugged and grabbed hold of Josh instead.
“Fine, I don’t think there was any harm done. Hey Josh, how many fingers am I showing?”
“See. No concussion. I bet you were more surprised than actually hurt.”
“Of course I was surprised! That ball flew through your head!”
“... Through my head?”
“Not literally,” He griped while still rubbing his forehead. “One second we are talking, the next you sway to the right and then I get hit by a ball! Dick move, pal!”
“Wait, what was I supposed to do?”
“Warn me! Or failing that, take the hit! Friends are supposed to take some hits for the other!”
I smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Well, I guess this time you took one for me, buddy.” He only frowned at me without a word, so I rolled my eyes and patted his shoulder a bit harder. “Oh come on! Stop with the long face. I will treat you to something later.”
“It was a nice dodge though,” The class rep declared, appearing out of nowhere like usual. At this point I wasn’t even surprised. “I honestly thought it would hit you in the back of the head.”
“Back of the head?”
I looked over in the direction of the field and my brows knit themselves before I even knew it. Indeed, considering that Josh was hit squarely on the forehead, and that I was facing him at the time, it meant that the ball was literally coming at me from the back… But I could distinctly remember seeing the ball coming. Well, a blur coming.
I looked at the class rep and, after a moment of hesitation, I ventured a guess.
She blinked at me, but then she put her hands on her hips and frowned with the ferocity of a wounded… well, maybe not tiger. Housecat? No, that’s too mild. Let’s go with 'feline of unusual size', that should cover all the bases. Anyways, she set her mouth in a line and said;
“Very funny. I’m not falling for that again.”
“Ack. Look at me Josh! I have become the boy who cried wolf one too many times!”
Everyone ignored me, which hurt a little. In the meantime Angie rushed over to Josh’s side and took a look at his forehead.
“Wow, that left a mark! Are you all right? Do you feel nauseous? Should we go to the infirmary?”
“I’m fine,” He protested, but his childhood friend already got herself riled up too much. Resistance was futile.
“Elly, grab him! I am going to tell Mrs. Applebottom where we are going! I’ll be back in a moment!”
The princess followed her instructions, and after a little while the group, including Mrs. Applebottom, left the field to take the still objecting Joshua to the nurse’s office. Since the teacher wasn’t around to give them instructions anymore, the placeholders began doing placeholder things in the background, such as talking about the weather or playing around with the equipment without any rhyme or reason.
As for me, I spent most of the empty time sitting under a tree by the side of the field, near the ball-catching fence of the tennis courts, preoccupied with the possibility of me being actually psychic. That was another notch in my notes under the ‘ideas I never thought I would take seriously’ header. Well, it was already obvious I could do some impossible things. Being able to view people from afar was already ESP territory, but now that I had a second ‘power’ under my belt, it opened the idea up for further investigation.
I looked up and found Judy looking down at me. I smiled at her and patted the ground besides me.
“Perfect timing.” She didn’t say anything; instead she just sat down by me and waited for me to elaborate. “Remember my ability?”
I rolled my eyes.
“No, I mean my ability to listen and see people at a distance.”
“Oh. You mean your alleged ability.”
“... I thought we pretty conclusively decided it was a thing.”
“It’s still not conclusive, and you haven’t been using it since Sunday.”
“Well, yeah...” I scratched my chin and tried not to grimace. “I just don’t like to invade other people’s privacy unless they invade mine first. Also, it’s a little disorienting.” She nodded but at the same time continued to look at me expectantly, apparently waiting for the reason why I brought it up. “Okay, here’s the thing: When Josh got hit with that ball that I dodged? I could see it coming even when I shouldn’t have been able to.”
“Possibly. Or just an extension of the first one. It’s the first time this happened, so I have no idea.”
There was silence for a few seconds.
“Testing?” She finally asked in the most excited voice I have ever heard coming out of her.
“Testing,” I affirmed with a sharp nod. “We haven’t done any experiments yet, so it’s about time.”
“I’ll go and get some tools.” With that she stood up and scampered away, In the meantime I moved to an out-of-view corner and prepared the area. After a minute or so Judy returned with a couple of the yellow rubber balls and two cans of soda. She promptly handed one over to me.
“Thanks?” I looked inquisitively at the drink in my hand.
“The vending machine was on the way.”
After that short exchange we both opened our cans and drank their contents in more-or-less one go.
“All right!” I told her as I rubbed my palms together. “Here’s what we are going to do: You will throw a ball at me and I will try to dodge it.”
Without waiting for any signal Judy threw the ball in her hand at me.
“Ow.” I declared flatly after being hit by it, more out of obligation than actually being hurt, and I picked up the ball at my feet. “You were supposed to wait until I closed my eyes.”
“You never specified that.”
“I would have, if you let me.” I paused for a moment, only just noticing the slightly petulant edge her voice had. Normally I might not have noticed, but since our traditional nightly phone-conversations started I began to focus more on her tone and less on her barely existent facial expressions. “Or... Did you just want to hit me with a ball?”
“Baseless accusation.” She stated, and then she threw another ball at me. This time I avoided it, though not because of any special ability but simply by good old fashioned reflexes.
“Actually, you have been giving me mixed signals for a while. Did I make you angry without noticing?”
She might have said that, but she was already preparing another ball to throw at me. In fact she would have thrown it anyways if not for a new voice entering the conversation.
“What are you doing?”
We looked at the direction of the voice and found the class rep there, her hands crossed in front of her chest.
“We are testing the chief’s reflexes by throwing balls at him,” My assistant supplied the information. It made the class rep visibly ponder for moment, and in the end she uncrossed her arms and stepped closer.
“Can I help?”
She didn’t even wait for an answer; instead she picked up a ball and began practicing over the shoulder throwing motions.
“Not just yet,” I told her with my hands raised. “Also, what are you even doing here? I though you would go with the others to the nurse’s.”
The class rep stopped swinging her arms and shook her head.
“We wouldn’t have fit in the room, and as the prefect,” She stressed the word and gave me a meaningful look, “It’s my duty to stay here and supervise the class.”
I nearly pointed out that she wasn’t doing that at the moment, but instead I asked; “So you aren’t worried about Josh?”
“Not really. He has a thick head.”
“In more ways than one,” I mumbled under my breath in a voice I thought no one could hear. Judy might have anyways, though I couldn’t understand what she mumbled in reaction. Something about ‘calling’ and being ‘black’.
At first I wanted to ask her about what she said, but I had a good idea what it was about, and I didn't want to poke the hornet's nest just yet. The PE class was almost over, so if we wanted to do any testing, we had to do it quick without any more sidetracking. As such I quickly gave out some basic instructions to the girls and took my place in front of the fence. I faced them, readied myself and then paused for a moment.
“Is it just me, or do you two look... unusually enthusiastic?” I asked them while following the balls Judy was trying to juggle between her hands. She snatched them out of the air and answered in a voice about 150% more deadpan than usual:
“It’s just your imagination.”
“Remind me not to get on your bad sides ever again...” I grumbled as we walked down the stairs while I was simultaneously limbering my stinging shoulder. “It was a complete dud too.”
The switched PE was our last class, so we changed, got our bags and were on our way to pick up Josh and the rest of the gang from the infirmary.
“Don’t worry chief, next time I’m sure you will do better.”
“Next time? I know you guys had fun throwing things at me, but I personally think we don’t need any more testing.”
Neither Judy nor the class rep answered, but they exchanged some very telling glances that somehow made me afraid of becoming a human target dummy at any moment. In the meantime we reached the ground floor and headed for the nurse’s office. Once we got there I knocked hard on the door and it instantly opened.
“O-ho-ho! We were expecting you.”
I subtly rolled my eyes at the overly enthusiastic greeting and entered the already crowded infirmary. Josh was sitting on the bed with Angie by his side, the girl constantly poking his steadily growing bump like it was a free candy-dispenser button. I couldn’t see the princess, but before I could ask about her whereabouts the nurse hopped before me with expectant eyes. I grimaced in annoyance, but I humored him nevertheless.
“What’s up doc?”
“O-ho-ho! Now that you ask, I am actually still looking into your amnesia question. Sadly your friend didn’t provide any new revelations, as he doesn’t seem to be missing any memories, but fear not! I still have new ideas that might be of use. For example…”
“Marvelous!” I answered in mock enthusiasm while simultaneously grabbing hold of Judy by the shoulder and placing her in front of the old man. “I would love to listen, but I have to check on Joshua. Please talk with my assistant.”
She gave me a deadpan glare, but I just smiled back at her. After pelting me over and over again even after I called off the experiment, this was the least she could do.
With that I slipped past them and made my way over to Josh’s bedside. Somehow the class rep managed to get there already, probably by slipping behind my back while I was focusing on the nurse.
“Hey there,” I greeted him with a smile. “Where’s the princess?”
“Elly went ahead to get Josh’s bag. She should be waiting for us by the entrance.” Angie answered while still poking Josh.
“Really? We didn’t meet her on the way. Oh well,” Saying so I leaned forwards while placing my hand on my chin and looked Joshua over like I was an art-critic assessing the quality of a post-modern statuette. At last I nodded and stood straight again.
“Yup, you seem all right.”
“Of course. I tried telling them, but no one would listen.” At this point he gestured to me to lean closer again and he added in a whisper, “I worry for Mr. Peabody though. He tried to ‘treat’ me with a hammer.”
“Oh, that?” I glanced over at the nurse, who was still in the middle of animatedly explaining something to my increasingly restless assistant. I returned my attention to Joshua and shrugged. “Yeah, he does that sometimes. Also, the proper term is ‘mallet’.”
“Stop whispering and let’s get going.”
The instruction came from the class rep, who was still unusually cranky. I gave her a placating “Sure.” and offered a helping hand to Josh. He obviously didn’t need it, but I did so all the same.
Once we gathered everyone’s stuff and I managed to peel the still very eager nurse away from my exasperated assistant, we finally left the premises and headed for the lockers. When we got there though, we were welcomed by a bizarre sight.
The princess, already in her outdoor shoes, was hugging the wall next to the entrance and peeking through the glass doors like she just fell out of a cheesy spy story. At first I didn’t pay much attention to her, but then I followed her gaze and found her looking at a large, black limo parked right in front of the school gates. Angie and the class rep were still playing mother hens around Josh (who was still insisting that he was perfectly fine, but it was all in vain) and Judy was on the other end of the hall changing her shoes, so after some thinking I hurriedly jumped into my sneakers and (please excuse the incredibly lame pun) sneaked up on the girl still staring through the door and poked her in the back.
She let out an amusing little yelp, which was expected. What I didn’t see coming was the moment of relief showing on her face when she turned around and realized it was me, though it only lasted for a moment.
“What are you doing?!” She hissed at me, but since saying ‘your back was wide open and I thought it would be fun to pester you a little’ would have made me sound childish, which I most certainly wasn’t, I instead pretended it was a rhetorical question and looked through the glass door instead.
“What are you looking at?”
She stayed silent for a while, but then she leaned over as well and gestured towards the limousine with her chin.
“Who?” I looked closer, and I finally realized there was a man standing by the school gate, and he was talking to… “Snowy…? Ah, then that must be her brother.”
“Yes.” She looked up at me, her eyes uncharacteristically uncertain. “What do we do now?”
“What do you mean? We go and say hi.”
“Are you crazy?!” She hissed again and tried to hold me back even though I haven’t shown any intent to actually go outside yet.
“Oh please, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
“That’s called ‘tempting fate’,” My assistant butted in from the left field, her bag already thrown over her shoulder and ready to go.
“Don’t you get started with it too,” I warned her wryly as, against the protest of the princess, we walked through the automatic door.
As we got closer, I was hit by a strange wave of irritation, and the longer I looked at the man, the stronger it became. It was a strangely familiar feeling, like when I first met Sebastian. Anyways, the guy in front of me was pretty big, about as tall as me, though a little on the lean side. He was wearing an expensive-looking black suit that probably had some kind of fancy-sounding Italian designer’s name attached to it, which was complimented by black leather shoes and matching leather gloves on his hands.
On an even closer look I could make out his face as well. He was moderately handsome (in a slightly gaunt, angular way), which was not surprising considering that the same could be said about literally everyone (though his mug somehow seemed eminently punchable), and while it was hard to guess his age at first glance, I would have put it somewhere in the mid-twenties range. His hair was long and lustrous like his sister’s, reaching almost to his collarbone, and he wore it swept back. In his case however it was pitch black, which made Snowy’s white even more striking as they stood next to each other.
Speaking of her, she seemed relaxed, but just by looking at her body language I could tell that she was in her ‘vamp’ mode. It was something about how she swayed her hips and held her arms under her chest, but it was one of those ‘once you noticed it you cannot unsee it anymore’ things, like those magic eye pictures.
By the time we got into earshot they noticed us and fell silent, so I couldn’t catch what they were talking about. In retrospect I realized I could have listened in on them with my newfound ability, but it didn’t occur to me until just then. When they faced me, I could see Snowy’s façade waver for a moment, but then she eased her face into a sultry smile that didn’t fit her at all.
“Hey,” I greeted them both with a light wave.
“Hello there, handsome,” Snowy answered with the expected purr, though I could have sworn she nearly stuttered in the middle. Her brother on the other hand looked me over like he was sizing me up (and as far as I knew, he was doing just that) until he smiled at me with that broad, eyes-half-closed, so-full-of-himself-he-is-about-to-spill-over-the-edge smile that is a characteristic of cheap bad guys who think they are smarter than everyone else in the room combined. If that didn’t make it abundantly clear, let me spell it out; I really, really didn’t like his mug.
“Well, well, well... If I’m not mistaken, you are the boy who has been helping my sister out as of late.” He paused and his smile faltered for a moment as he looked at something behind me. I only spared a glance, but it still told me that the rest of the gang caught up with us in record time, with the princess stopping right beside me. For some reason she was breathing hard, so I figured she might have actually ran the distance. Nevertheless she stood tall and gave the man one of her patented glares. Still smiling he looked over our group one by one, only lingering on each face for less than a second before his gaze returned to me, this time with a dangerous twinkle in his eyes. “It seems like you keep a... colorful company.”
“Indeed I do,” I answered while employing a fake smile of my own. “And you are the Esteemed Elder Brother of Snowy, if I am not mistaken.”
“Indeed,” He took a step towards me and removed his thick black leather glove from his right hand before offering it to me. “Noir Irdu Inanna.”
I was about to raise my hand in return when the princess at my side hissed a sharp “Wait, don’t!” at me... which I promptly ignored and proceeded to clasp the guy’s hand anyways. Even though it wasn’t particularly cold outside and he was wearing a glove, his hand was surprisingly chilly. His smile widened for a moment as he began to squeeze, but then as I began to squeeze back, it immediately got overlaid by a surprised frown, which then abruptly boiled into a death-glare before the smile returned once again. It all took less than a second, but it was enough for me to cement my initial impression of this guy: he was a pompous asshole of astronomical proportions.
“I’m Leonard Dunning. It’s a pleasure to make acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is mine,” He answered in a deceptive pleasant voice and I flashed another toothy smile at him.
“Are you perchance about to take Snowy home?”
“Oh, that’s a pity. We were just about to invite her to hang out with us. You see, there is this new gyros place nearby that we are just dying to try out. Right, Josh?”
“Y-Yeah...” My friend muttered uncertainly, which was understandable under the circumstances. He probably had no idea why we even got into this situation.
The big brother (whom I was not going to call Noir, because it sounded pretentious as all hell and it made him sound more impressive than he really was) gave a good, long look at my friend and after a few seconds his smile crept back onto his face.
“I see. I think it would be inappropriate for an older brother to interfere with his beloved sister’s social life.” He faced Snowy next. “Very well. You may go out, but I expect you to be home before curfew.” Not even bothering to wait for her response, he turned to Josh again and gave him a grin that made all other grins in existence pale in comparison. “Please let my sister take good care of you.”
“Um... Sure?” Josh mumbled in response, even more confused than before.
“That sounded really corny.”
“What?” His eyes suddenly snapped at me, the murderous sparks once again twinkling in them like tiny firecrackers.
“I said, that sounded dumb. I’m sure it sounded way cooler in your head, but it really wasn’t. It had something of a creepy uncle vibe to it.”
The guy’s smile slowly hardened as he leaned closer and his voice dropped into a dangerously low rumble.
“Are you trying to pick a fight with me, boy?”
“Naaaaah! Me, picking a fight with you? What could have given you such a strange idea?”
We stared daggers at each other for a good five seconds without blinking while trying to out-fake-smile the other. In the end big bro let out a wheezy chuckle and shook his head.
“And here I thought we could be friends.”
"No you didn't."
"… You are right. I didn't." After our short exchange he theatrically put on his glove and looked over me with something of a slasher smile. “Here's a friendly advice though: I suggest you should be careful on your way home, young man.”
Now it was my turn to let out a derisive chuckle.
“Oh please. That’s the second thinly veiled death-threat I received from an inexplicably well-dressed man in the past week, and yours is by far the less impressive one.”
For a moment the guy’s smile threatened to dissolve into a full-blown glare, but then he stopped and for some reason spent several seconds staring at his still ungloved right hand. In the end he put on the missing glove and turned back to me with a surprisingly neutral expression.
“Then let me put it this way: I might be a nice man, but some of my friends are a…lot less amicable than I. You better make sure you watch your mouth, or they might just take offence in my stead and... Well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley.”
With that he gave us a shallow nod and he turned around in a way I was sure he intended to be dashing.
“You see Crowey? I knew you had it in you.”
He twitched a little at the mention of his brand new, off-the-cuffs nickname, but didn’t turn around. Instead he walked up to the limo and tapped its door with his finger. It opened seemingly by itself, though I figured it was someone hiding behind the darkened windows that did it, and he got inside after sending one last death-glare at me. I grinned at him in return, though he probably didn’t see it as the car immediately lurched forwards the moment he closed the door behind himself and disappeared down the street.
Everyone was silent for a few seconds, then the girls seemed to let out their breath in unison. I looked over with a flat “What?”
“Why did you have to do that?!” The princess burst out first.
“The chief is a man of many talents,” My assistant stated dryly in an ironic echo. “Infuriating people for no reason is merely one of them.”
“Yeah, yeah. How about we get going?” I gestured for Snowy to come over, and she did so without a word. Needless to say, the moment her brother left she immediately dropped the vamp act and returned to the awkward girl we all knew and loved.
“That was foolish.” She stated dryly, though if her eyes were any indication, she was much more rattled than her voice had indicated. “You shouldn’t have angered my brother.”
“Nah, this would have happened sooner or later anyways. I told you, I already knew we wouldn’t get along when I first talked to him.”
In the meantime I began walking and the group grudgingly followed after me.
“What did you call him at the end?” Angie posed the question after she elbowed her way to the front. “Crowey?”
“Yeah.” Her, and in extension the others’ eyes urged me to explain. “His name means black, but calling him a raven would have made him sound too cool, so I went with crow instead. It also rhymes with Snowy.”
“I was meaning to ask,” Josh interrupted before I could explain the profound thought-processes that led to this nick-name. “Why are you calling Lili ‘Snowy’?”
Now it was the class rep’s turn to butt in.
“The better question is, why are you calling Neige ‘Lili’?”
“Huh? I thought that was her given name?” He glanced at Snowy. “Was I wrong?”
“N-No. I don’t mind.”
“Oh, that’s a relief. For a moment I thought I messed up.”
“No, it’s fine…”
“Excuse me,” Now it was the princess’s turn to interrupt. At this point they might as well have passed a baton around and made it official. Anyways, she pointed at me and said, “You said you already received death-threats this week? Who was it?”
“Hm? Sebastian, of course. Who else?” I thought my comment about the person also being sharply dressed would have made that clear, but apparently it didn’t.
“How come this is the first time I've heard about this?!”
“Oh come on, it’s not like he actually meant it.” I paused for a moment. “Well, at least I don’t think he meant it. Or did he?”
“I have a better question,” Judy declared, grabbing the proverbial baton for herself. “Are we even going the right way?”
We stopped in our tracks and everyone was looking at me.
“What? How should I know?”
“I see…” Angie declared as she suddenly came to the front and puffed her chest out. “It is time for me to take over this expedition! Follow me!”
With that she began walking in the exact same direction we were walking before. We all looked at each other, and after a few moments of intense shrugging we all followed suit. In retrospect, this was the very first time all of us hung out at once, yet at the time it felt nothing special. As they say though, sometimes it’s the simplest things that create the best memories.